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Huawei Ascend P7 hands-on review

08 May 2014

PARIS: Chinese tech giant Huawei has stepped up its push to wrestle control of the UK smartphone market from Samsung and Apple with the unveiling of its latest flagship Ascend P7 handset.

Huawei claims that despite retailing for a modest €450 (about £370), the Ascend P7's advanced imaging and 4G technologies make it more than a match for the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Apple iPhone 5S.

Design and build
The Ascend P7 adheres to the same design philosophy as its predecessor, having been built to be as light and thin as possible. At just 6.5mm thick and weighing 124g, the Ascend P7 is significantly thinner and lighter than competing Android handsets, but it's not as light as the 112g Apple iPhone 5S.Huawei Ascend P7 three quarter
Like the Ascend P6, the P7's top and sides are slightly sharp while its bottom edge is rounded. The front and back are covered in Gorilla glass, which feels nice but tends to show up fingerprints. Despite its slightly sharp sides, the device is fairly comfortable to hold. It also felt fairly solid and capable of surviving the odd accidental bump and scrape.

This year has already seen an influx of handsets boasting superb displays. Not to be outdone, Huawei has loaded the Ascend P7 with a 5in 1920x1080 IPS, 441ppi screen that performed impressively during our hands-on, with icons and text looking sharp and clear even under the showroom's bright lights.

Huawei Ascend P7 front

Colours were generally vibrant and rich, but when hit by direct sunlight the display became reflective and all but impossible to use - though being fair to Huawei this is an issue we experience on 99 percent of the smartphones we review.

Operating system and software
The Ascend P7 comes running Google Android 4.4.2 KitKat overlaid with Huawei's custom Emotion UI 2.3 skin. While we're pleased to see the use of KitKat, the inclusion of Emotion UI is less appealing.

This is because Emotion UI reworks Android's user interface to the point it is all but unrecognisable. Emotion UI replaces all application shortcut icons with custom alternatives and moves the location of many key menus and settings options. The skin also removes Android's native app tray feature and places all installed applications on the main menu screens - as they are on Apple iOS. The changes are generally to the detriment of the operating system and make Android far less intuitive to use.

This heavy-handed approach to skinning the OS will also impact the phone's ability to receive Android updates as Emotion's code will have to be tweaked to work with every new release from Google - a practice that could take weeks, or even months.

Unlike most 2014 flagship smartphones, the Ascend P7 is not powered by Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 801 processor and instead runs on Huawei's own 1.8GHz quad core HiSilicon Kirin 910T processor.

We were impressed with the handset's performance. Featuring 2GB of RAM, the Ascend P7 ran smoothly, and opened applications and webpages close to instantly both on the showroom WiFi and outside on Three's 4G network.

Huawei Ascend P7 back

We haven't yet had a chance to test how the Ascend P7 coped with more demanding tasks like 3D gaming, or benchmark the handset during our hands-on but will be sure to do so for our full review.

Huawei made a big deal about the Ascend P7's 13MP rear and 8MP front cameras during the phone's Paris unveiling, claiming they will offer better imaging quality than the Samsung Galaxy S5 and iPhone 5S. This is thanks in part to the device's DSLR level Image Signal Processor (ISP), which Huawei claims radically improves low-light performance. We were impressed how well the Ascend P7's rear camera performed. During our opening tests images shot around Paris in bright sunlight looked crisp and featured decent contrast and colour balance levels.

The 8MP front camera also performed very well and actually managed to match the performance of many 2013 smartphones' primary rear cameras during our opening test shots.

Battery and storage
The Ascend P7 is powered by a 2,500mAh battery that Huawei lists as offering users 14 hours' talk time. If accurate, the figure means the Ascend P7 should offer above average battery life. We didn't get a chance to test battery life during our hands-on but will be sure to do so come our full review.Huawei Ascend P7 side

The Huawei Ascend P7 review unit we tested came with 16GB of inbuilt storage. Further storage can be added using its microSD card slot, meaning most users shouldn't have to worry about running out of space.

Set for release in the UK this month, the Huawei Ascend P7 delivers the kind of performance and imaging quality usually seen on handsets costing as much as £200 more.

Our only significant gripe so far is with its less than stellar Emotion skin, which as well as making the Ascend P7 slightly unintuitive to use, will also undoubtedly hamper its ability to receive software updates from Google.

Check back with V3 later for a full review of the Huawei Ascend P7.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Firefox 29 hands-on review

30 Apr 2014

Since the beta of Firefox 29 launched earlier this year, Mozilla fans have been rushing to test out the new web browser. With Firefox 29 now out in its final release version, it's clear why, with Mozilla having added a host of improvements that make the browser on paper one of the most advanced and flexible currently available.

User interface
Firefox 29 features a completely redesigned user interface designed to help users browse the web more efficiently.

The most obvious changes include the the bookmark manager's move to be next to the bookmark star in the Firefox toolbar, the migration of the Firefox menu button to the right corner of the toolbar and a redesigned home page that gives you one-click access to key functions such as "Downloads", "Bookmarks" and "Add-ons".Firefox 29 beta

Past this, Firefox 29 also features a number of more subtle changes that, while small, make using the browser more pleasant. One of the biggest of these is the new tab page, which automatically displays thumbnails of frequently visited sites.

Firefox 29 also adds a new Customise option that lets users tweak the browser's interface by manually dragging and dropping commonly used features into the UI.

Firefox 29 adds Mozilla's reworked Firefox Sync service. The new synchronisation feature is similar to that seen on Google Chrome and requires users to set up a Firefox Account. The account stores and synchronises information from various Firefox services like bookmarks, history, and any open tabs across any device the user is logged into.

Add-ons and extras
As well as its reworked interface, Firefox 29 adds several useful under the hood technical upgrades. These include the ability to open and read PDF files without having to install a third-party add-on, as well as new WebRTC framework support. The WebRTC framework adds direct support for in-browser audio and video chats.Firefox browser beta

Firefox 29 also features all the standard essential features including a powerful search bar, pop-up blocker, integrated web search functionality and RSS feed reader.

Security and privacy
Outside of Firefox 29's productivity upgrades, Mozilla's also worked hard to improve the browser's security and privacy services. Firefox 29 features a new private browsing tab option, which offers similar services to Google Chrome's "incognito" mode. The option opens up a private tab that doesn't save any browser or search activity carried out in it.

The browser also includes options that will instruct Firefox 29 to block known malicious sites and alert its user if it detects nefarious activity, like an add-on or site instructing it to do something like change the default search provider without permission. Firefox 29 can also be set up to block outdated web plugins such as Flash and Java from opening content, reducing the users' chance of being hit by hackers targeting older exploits in the services.

Our opening time with Firefox 29 has been positive. Featuring a significantly more user-friendly, customisable interface and variety of under the hood productivity and security upgrades, Firefox 29 is a solid choice for any web user. However, with many of the features already having appeared on competing browsers, like Google Chrome, some users may struggle to find any reason to jump ship to Firefox.

MacBook Air 2014 v 2013: Specs and price comparison

30 Apr 2014

New Apple Macbook Air line-up side-by-side

On Tuesday Apple made a quiet update to its MacBook Air range. Rather than the usual razzmatazz of a new Apple unveiling, this time the firm issued a release and left it at that.

What’s new, and what's missing?
The low-key announcement was probably due to the fact the only clear difference between the new Macbook Air devices and the old ones is a slightly improved CPU, which has increased from an Intel iCore 1.3GHz processor to 1.4GHz.

Perhaps more notable was the (disappointing) fact that Apple has not updated the screens for the MacBook Air 2014 range to include its Retina display technology.

Mac aficionados will no doubt be hoping Apple adds this to the range at its next big unveiling, possibly in September. Apple rumours have also suggested a 12in model will be unveiled later this year sporting the Retina display technology.

As such, those considering a new MacBook may decide to wait until later in the year.

Price cuts
One area of improvement that could tempt buyers is the price. Apple has lopped £100 off the cost of the cheapest device, so the 11.6in display model starts from £749 when bought with 128GB of flash storage.

For 256GB of flash storage the price is £899. This is a saving of £130 compared to the same model from the 2013 range.

Meanwhile the 13.3in model starts from £849 with 128GB flash storage and rises to £999 with 256GB of flash storage. That represents a saving of either £100 or £130, compared to last year's models.

For those in the market for a Mac, being able to pick up an Air device from £749 could well prove enticing. The screenshot below from the Apple page shows the price differences:

New Apple Macbook Air line-up

Best of the rest
While the rest of the specs have not changed from the previous Air range, it is still worth running over what you get for your money:

                            11in model                       13in model

Storage:           128GB or 256GB                128GB or 256GB
Weight:            1.08 kg                              1.35 kg
Dimensions:     30x19.2x.1.7cm                 32.5x22.7x1.7cm
Battery:            Nine hours                         12 hours
Screen:            11.6in, 1366x768                13.3in, 1440x900

Both devices also have a 720HD front-facing camera for FaceTime calls and 4GB of memory. They also both offer two USB 3 ports and a Thunderbolt port.

Is it worth the upgrade?
For those on an existing 2013 Air device it seems not. The only difference is a minor boost in compute power, which while nice, is never worth buying a whole new device.

However, for those considering a Mac, the temptation will only grow. The reduced cost alongside the same high-end specs Apple has always offered is a strong pull.

With many not interested in the new Windows 8 operating system, and increasingly comfortable using iOS devices, the decision to move to Apple's laptops to complete the set just got a lot more enticing.

New Apple Macbook Air line-up 13in model

The new 13in Apple Macbook Air

Galaxy S5 vs Nexus 5 spec by spec

11 Apr 2014

The Samsung Galaxy S5 arrived on UK shelves on Friday 11 April, and the Korean firm will be hoping to steal users away from rival smartphones such as the Google Nexus 5.

While the Google Nexus 5 debuted last October, the device still sports top-end specifications, and has so far managed to win over users' affections due to its vanilla Android 4.4 Kitkat mobile operating system and affordable price, with the handset retailing from £299, making it more than £200 cheaper than the Galaxy S5.

Here we compare the specs of the Samsung Galaxy S5 against the Nexus 5 to see which one is worth your money. 

Windows 8.1 Update hands-on review

11 Apr 2014

Microsoft's Windows 8.1 Update was made generally available for users to download on 8 April, a week after it was officially announced and released to subscribers of Microsoft's MSDN service.

As detailed by Microsoft, the update adds a number of changes to improve usability for desktop and laptop users working with a mouse and keyboard instead of a touchscreen. In doing so, the Windows 8.1 Update more successfully integrates the Desktop and Start screen environments than earlier builds of Microsoft's platform, though possibly not enough to please those hungering for the return of the Start menu.

We downloaded the Windows 8.1 Update by checking for it via Windows Update, but it only appeared once we had installed all other pending updates to bring our Windows 8.1 system completely up to date. Users who are not in a hurry do not need to do anything, as it will be distributed via Windows Update the usual way over the coming weeks. The update itself was over 800MB in size, and took some time to download and install.

Windows 8.1 Update Start screenFor those using a tablet, the changes may not be too apparent at first. The Start screen and its array of tiles look pretty much the same, save for the addition of a Search tool shortcut and a power button, tapping which enables you to shutdown, restart or put the system to sleep directly from the home screen (shown left).

Perhaps the most noticeable change on our test system was that Windows goes straight to the Desktop rather than the Modern UI Start screen after signing in, though this can be configured by the user.

However, users still need to go to the Start screen in order to open any applications, apart from Internet Explorer and the Windows Store, both of which are now pinned to the taskbar on the Desktop by default.

For those users with a desktop or laptop that lacks a touchscreen, it is fair to say that Windows 8 has been a bit unwieldy to use. In an attempt to address this, the Windows 8.1 Update adds minimise and close buttons that appear at top right if you move the mouse pointer to the top of the screen in any Modern UI app. Likewise, the Windows taskbar now pops up if you move the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen (see below), even on the Start screen, and context-sensitive menus appear if you right-click on tiles.

Windows 8.1 Update showing taskbar

One interesting change is that Modern UI apps such as the built-in Mail or Weather tools now show on the taskbar (see below), allowing you to switch between them from the Desktop environment. Although the Modern UI apps still look the same, taking up the entire screen rather than running in a Window, this small change starts to make the Start screen and Desktop environments feel more integrated rather than two distinctly separate spaces.

Windows 8.1 Update desktop

One feature we did not test out is Enterprise Mode for IE11, which renders websites as if the user were running an older version of the browser, to handle compatibility issues with corporate websites and apps. This feature is hidden by default and must be enabled via an administrator using Group Policy.

Overall, the Windows 8.1 Update shows that Microsoft has been hearing the complaints of Windows users and is moving to address them. The software giant has perhaps not gone quite far enough yet to satisfy those users distraught over the loss of the traditional Start button and menus, but it does offer a greatly improved experience over the original Windows 8 and perhaps offers hints of what we can expect to see in Windows 9 next year.

For a full list of what's new in Windows 8.1 Update, see Microsoft's Windows website.

Nokia Lumia 930 hands-on review

03 Apr 2014

Nokia has been championing Windows Phone for several years now, releasing a steady stream of business-friendly handsets full of innovative security and productivity services. This effort has paid off to a large extent, with Windows Phone's market share growing from less than three percent to just over 10 percent since Nokia launched its first Windows Phone, the Lumia 800.

According to Nokia Windows Phone has had particular success in the corporate space, with UK president Conor Pierce claiming the OS currently has an impressive 18 percent share of the business market. For this reason it's unsurprising Nokia's chosen to continue its enterprise conquest push and has unveiled a new Windows Phone 8.1-powered Lumia 930 flagship handset it claims is its most business friendly to date.

Design and build
Visually, like all Nokia smartphones, the Lumia 930 has a colourful, distinctive design that is slightly reminiscent of the firm's previous Lumia 925 Windows Phone. The Lumia 930 has metallic, angular sides and a coloured polycarbonate backplate.Nokia Lumia 930 hands on desk

Size-wise the Lumia 930 measures in at 137x71x9.8mm and weighs 167g. This puts it on a par with most 5in handsets, like HTC's latest 146x71x9.4mm, 160g One M8. This means that smartphone users accustomed to smaller handsets, like the Apple iPhone 5S or Sony Xperia Z1 Compact, may find the Lumia 930 slightly unwieldy. However, despite its increased size, during our hands-on we found the Lumia 930 was still fairly comfortable in hand and wasn't overly cumbersome.

We were also reasonably impressed with the Nokia Lumia 930's build quality. Pushing down on the Lumia 930's back we found the clipped-in polycarbonate plate offered no give. The phone also felt reasonably scratch proof and in general left us feeling suitably reassured it could survive the accidental bump or scrape.

Nokia's loaded the Lumia 930 with a 5in Full HD, 1920x1080, 441ppi organic light-emitting diode (OLED) display.

Testing the Lumia 930's display in the well-lit Nokia press room we were very impressed. Colours displayed on Windows Phone's tiled user interface appeared vibrant and rich and the display featured dazzlingly good brightness levels - so much so that it began to hurt our eyes using it at maximum brightness. Text displayed on the screen was also crisp and the screen boasted significantly wider viewing angles than most competing 5in smartphones.

Operating system and software
One of the Lumia 930's most interesting and potentially biggest selling points is its use of Microsoft's latest Windows Phone 8.1 (WP8.1) operating system. WP8.1 adds a variety of new features to Windows Phone. Some of these are quite consumer focused, like the ability to set a background image in the main UI and increased theme options for the phone's lock screen, though many have undeniable business appeal.

These include key things like Skype being directly integrated into the phone's dialler app, a new productivity-focused Calendar user interface, 'Cortana' voice assistant and 'Action Center' quick alert service.Nokia Lumia 930 hands on back

The Cortana service offers similar functionality to Apple's Siri and lets users do things like launch specific applications or mount web searches with voice commands. The Action Centre pull-down notifications menu is similar to the one seen on Google's Android operating system.

WP8.1 also comes with a number of under the hood mobile device management (MDM) upgrades designed to improve the OS' appeal to IT managers and enterprise-level companies. The upgrades include newly added Line of Business application and certificate management powers and inbuilt secure/multipurpose internet mail extension (S/MIME) and virtual private network (VPN) support.

The Nokia Lumia 930 is powered by a 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 800 processor and features 2GB of RAM. This puts the Lumia 930 one step shy of running on Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 801 chip.

However, despite running on last year's chip, during our hands-on we never once noticed a performance issue using the Lumia 930. Testing the Lumia 930 we found it ran perfectly smoothly and opened applications in milliseconds. Sadly we didn't get a chance to benchmark the Lumia 930 or see how it coped with more demanding tasks, like 3D gaming, though we'll be sure to do this for our full review.

Despite carrying Nokia's prestigious Pureview branding, the Lumia 930 doesn't feature the 41MP camera sensor debuted on its predecessor the Lumia 1020. Instead the Lumia 930 comes loaded with a 20MP rear camera complete with Zeiss optics.Nokia Lumia 930 hands on photo

Testing the Lumia 930's camera by taking a few quick pictures around the press room we noticed the new Windows Phone's camera is far more responsive than the 1020's, which at times could feel fairly laggy. Image quality was also very good, with images captured on the Lumia 930 generally coming out looking sharp and featuring decent colour and contrast levels.

Battery and storage
The Lumia 930 is powered by a 2,420mAh battery that Nokia lists as offering users 15.5 hours' talktime and up to nine hours' video playback. We didn't get a chance to test the Lumia 930's battery during our hands-on, but if the handset matches Nokia's claims the phone's battery will be better than average, with most handsets in its size range offering 6.5 to seven hours of video playback. As an added bonus Nokia's also loaded wireless charging to the Lumia 930, meaning users will be able to quickly and easily top up the phone's battery throughout the day.

Storage-wise the Lumia 930 comes with a reasonable 32GB built in. Sadly the Lumia 930 doesn't have a microSD card slot, meaning users won't be able to upgrade the phone's storage after purchase.

Our opening experience with the Nokia Lumia 930 has been very positive. While the handset doesn't have the technology "wow" factor of its predecessor, the Lumia 1020, which was the first ever Windows Phone to feature a 41MP camera, during our hands-on we discovered plenty of software features to get excited about.

Our only concern about the Lumia 930 is that Nokia is yet to release one key detail about the smartphone - its price. Without this key bit of information, knowing the phone's exact chances in the increasingly competitive top-end device market is difficult.

The Nokia Lumia 930 is set to arrive in the UK in June. Check back with V3 then for a full review of the Nokia Lumia 930.

By V3's Alastair Stevenson

Microsoft Office apps: Word, Excel and PowerPoint for iPad hands-on

28 Mar 2014

Word screenshot from Office for iPad app

Microsoft has finally unveiled versions of its Word, Excel and PowerPoint tools for the iPad. New CEO Satya Nadella unveiled the tools on Thursday, as he begins his tenure as the firm’s new leader with a focus on mobility and cloud.

The apps are now available to download from the iTunes store, although Apple hasn’t given Microsoft the honour of any home screen banner splash, so you’ll have to search to find them.

Once you do, each requires downloading separately, and you’ll want to be by a good WiFi connection, as each app is over 200MB in size. The PowerPoint app is 205MB, the Excel app is 221MB and Word is a hefty 246MB.

Each app is built around the same design style as Microsoft’s Windows 8 platform, with soft fonts and logos, and it looks nice. The apps all load quickly and are easy to navigate, and switch between portrait and landscape orientation immediately.

From there on in, though, to get the most from the apps you will need an Office 365 subscription. Without one, you can do nothing more than simply open and view documents in the apps which, while handy, doesn’t really provide much use.

With a subscription, though, you can use them to their full potential. Each of the three apps provides a raft of template documents, presentations and spreadsheets – shown below for Excel and above for Word.

Excel for iPad app from Microsoft

Using the apps is straightforward, with Microsoft keeping the familiar look and feel of the tools while incorporating the features of the iPad everyone knows well.

Typing in a Word document, for instance, is simple using the iPad keyboard, while the usual editing and formatting capabilities are easily accessed (shown below). In Excel you can pinch-to-zoom so you can view hundreds of cells at once, or zoom to a specific cell to view information.

Word for iPad screenshot 

PowerPoint is also nice to use, with text boxes easily moved by dragging them around the display using your finger, while a nice touch allows you to press and hold to call up a laser point graphic (pictured below).

This is a nice touch and shows the thought Microsoft has put into making the tools as user friendly as possible, no doubt to cement its position as the top dog in the business software world as it looks to meet the needs of its "billion-plus" user base, according to Nadella.

Laser point in PowerPoint for Office for iPad app

All-in-all at first look the three apps on the iPad are impressive. They show that Microsoft has fully recognised the need to provide a high-quality experience for its key businesses tools; it can no longer ignore the popularity of the iPad for busy business folk.

Whether it hampers attempts to flog its own tablets by removing any of their unique selling points around Office software remains to be seen, but with a new man at the helm, Microsoft is clearly willing to move into new areas and recognise the realities of the new IT market.

Samsung Galaxy S5 vs Galaxy Note 3 spec by spec

27 Mar 2014

With a 5.1in HD 1080p display it's not exactly small, but when it comes to size, the Samsung Galaxy S5 still can't compete with the the Galaxy Note 3 'phablet' and its larger 5.7in screen. Here we compare the two devices' on-paper specifications to find out which is the best option.

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